James Ruddick,
Death at the Priory:
Sex, Love & Murder
in Victorian England

(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001)

The Victorians certainly did love a good scandal, and the sensational death of Charles Bravo was precisely that. Why would a successful man, recently married to a beautiful and wealthy heiress, commit suicide? And if he did, why would he choose potassium antimony, one of the most agonizing poisons known to man, as the agent of his fate? Or was it possible that he was murdered? The detectives assigned to the case believed so, but proving foul play with the investigative methods used in 1875 was difficult. Also, there were several suspects, each with a plausible motive: the wife, the housekeeper, the ex-coachman or the wife's former lover, prominent physician Dr. James Gully. The latest juicy details of the investigation and trial kept the good folk of England glued to their newspapers for weeks.

This scandal was made more piquant because the dead man's wife, Florence Ricardo, had already been involved in one major controversy, when she was discovered having intimate relations with her elderly, married lover, Gully. Although people in that era talked openly about death, politics and many other subjects, sex was taboo, and the furor aroused by her indelicate actions was probably what drove Florence to marry Bravo. She was seeking the respect and social prominence that only a married woman could have. That Bravo was a bully, sexually demanding, and worst of all, would try to control her household and her money was something that she did not foresee.

In many ways, Charles Bravo was the typical Victorian man. A firm believer in natural male superiority, he was determined to be the ruler in what he viewed as his home, by force if need be. Florence was quite untypical, very headstrong, stubbornly refusing to follow the "expected" pattern of behavior for a young woman of the day. She left her first husband because of his drinking and abuse, despite the severe wrath of her father. It just was not done! She obtained a divorce (with Gully's help, as a woman in that era could not petition for divorce unless a man was willing to guarantee financial support, and her father refused) and lived more or less as she pleased for years. The clash of wills that ensued when this volatile couple wed demonstrate clearly what second-class citizens women really were. Unable to resist the bully physically, and with virtually no legal right to resist him any other way, did Florence become so desperate to escape that murder seemed her only choice? This book provides a fascinating peek into the complexity of Victorian society with its different standards for male and female, rich and poor.

The case was never solved, and was viewed as one of the most baffling cases in British jurisprudence. Numerous books, both nonfiction and novelized accounts, have been written on the subject, but no definite conclusions ever reached. However, with painstaking research, Ruddick believes that he has at last arrived at the answer. His meticulous, carefully presented conclusions are compelling. A journalist by trade, he writes with the easy-reading, straightforward style of the best newspapers and the thrilling subject makes this a hard book to put down until the surprising end. I would recommend it for any history buff, as well as any lover of detective fiction or true crime tales.

[ by April Chase ]
Rambles: 18 August 2002

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